Thursday, April 21, 2016

Big Brother in a Box

Are you excited about the prospect of computer-centered competency based education? Are you an administrator whose fondest dream is to sit in your office, managing every aspect of your school by way of a big shiny bank of computer screens? Well, here's just one example of the many companies eager to make a buck help you achieve your vision. Meet

Schoolrunner promises, well, everything. Time for teachers. Administrator bliss. Power of parents. Student success. Those are all their headlines, not mine. And as we break it down more, the picture becomes at once more vivid and more terrible.

Evidence based academics. Because academics are now based on, I don't know-- tea leaves and palm readings? But Schoolrunner promises "Don't just view results, elicit actionable insight from your academic data." Because we all love to elicit actionable insight.

Track student behavior. We will "log, view and communicate behavioral performance." Simplify attendance. It is possible I'm doing attendance wrong, because I thought it was pretty simple already. Empower your students. Apparently by letting them look at some of their own data files.  But wait-- there's more.

Easy-to-consume data. Consume by whom, one wonders, but Schoolrunner promises to "make molehills out of mountains" which doesn't even-- I mean, what does that even mean? Reduce large amounts of data to small meaningless blips?

One system to do it all. One system to find them. One system to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. Put all your data eggs in our special cyber basket!

Configure your goals. Figure out the purpose of everything and lock it into the Big Brother Box.

Above and Beyond School Management. "More than just a management system" is what you have to keep saying to sell this multi-limbed management octopus. Don't try to sell it by declaring, "Now we will control everything." Definitely don't follow with a maniacal laugh. Instead, keep insisting that if you can have centralized monitoring and control of everything everyone does in the district, you will "create the highest level of achievement for your students." Always remember that system domination is For The Children.

If you want to look at a more fleshed-out pitch for this sort of uber-management, Schoolrunners has a lovely "white paper" entitled "Five Ways SMART SCHOOLS Are Using Data To Drive Performance." (I don't know why they yell "SMART SCHOOLS"-- perhaps they're just very excited).

So what are these five golden rings of data enabled awesomeness?

1) Transparency.

The opening example is uncompelling. Apparently, if you keep actual records of student behavior problems, when a parent calls, you can use those specifics to talk to the parent. Also, if you serve food in the cafeteria, students are more likely to find it at lunch time.

They go on to argue that with data transparency, students can tell how they're doing, families receive an "in-depth look into their child's education," teachers can "immediately discern trouble areas for students," and administrators can-- well, let me hold onto that one for a second. Students can use the data, for sure. Parents in some families (you know-- the ones where parents and children don't communicate much) will benefit. The teacher who needs this should not be a teacher. If the answer to, "How is Chris doing in class" is "I won't know until I check the data read-out," I have my doubts about how much the data read-out will really help you.

Administration? Well, administrators "can see the performance of both their students and their staff in real time."  Emphasis mine. This suggests that this system means to keep the teachers chained to their computers at all times, so that administrators can see what the teacher is up to. This seems like twelve kinds of a bad idea, showing little trust and reducing teachers to mindless widgets. MIndless widgets make lousy teachers no matter how great a system they're chained to.

2) Culture. 

 Numbers don’t create culture. If numbers created culture, salons would be run by math books. People create culture. Understanding how and why people make decisions improves
the relationship within your school’s community.

And then they explain how you use the numbers to see if you made the right culture choices or not. So numbers don't create culture, but they must be used to measure and justify it. Baloney.

3) Efficiency

Everyone is familiar with the concept of doing more with less.

Yikes. From that inauspicious opening, they move on to explain that having a super-duper data system frees up teachers from having to spend all their time massaging data. One school used centralized data and that led to a "holistic view of their students at a global level." So, wow. Also, in the end they learned that they could actually do more with less. So I think maybe they meant to say "productivity" instead of "efficiency," which is just as well, because efficiency is actually the enemy of excellence. The most efficient system is one that manages to hit the high side of mediocrity and the low side of cost. This is not a great target for a public school system.

4) Access

If you have data in a computer system, people can see it. That seems to be the point here. Illustration include a school nurse who can look up a policy on vomiting students or can see that a student turns up sick every day at the same time. Because without computers, nobody would ever know these things? 

Being able to get "the information you want, when you need it" is a pretty good selling point, but I'm not sure we need Big Brother in a Box to do that.

5) Action

There is no need to rely on gut feeling, intuition, or spidey-sense when you know exactly where your strengths are and how you can leverage those strengths to address the pain-points that have crept into your school. Data generates actionable intelligence.

I'd be more inclined to say that there is no need to rely on some number-crunching data-shoveling program that may or may not have been written by someone who knows what they're doing if instead you can use the sense nature gave you and the ability to pay attention to the carbon-based life forms around you.

"Gut feeling, intuition and spidey-sense" are just dismissive ways to refer to experience, intelligence, sensitivity, emotional intelligence, alertness, and awareness. Can you always use a different perspective and another set of eyes? Absolutely. But if your "gut" is so lousy that you think a computer program would be better, then 1) you should be in another line of work and 2) your "gut" is also not smart enough to make good use of whatever the computer program tells you.

Never trust any system, ever, that sets a goal of removing human judgment for the business of dealing with humans. First, the "removal" is a lie-- any such system merely substitutes the judgment of the system creators for the judgment of the humans on the ground, and therefor 2) you can never remove human judgment from situations that run on human judgment. , so your real question is how to get the best human judgment in play.

Spoiler alert-- the best way is not to try to create a system that makes all educational and behavioral decisions for the classroom teacher while putting the drivers' seat in some office where the school's CEO can sit and manage everything on a big bank of computer screens.

Who already uses this?

Schoolrunner proudly announces that they are "driving student success at the nation's most progressive schools." You may first want to ask exactly how one "drives" student success, and why would one describe the process in a way that seems to reduce the actual student to an inanimate object. But after that, of course, you'll ask, "And which are the nation's most progressive schools, pray tell?'

Well, the listed winners are the Milwaukee Collegiate Academy, Choice Foundation, Achievement School District, KIPP: Houston, and Crescent City Schools. Crescent City and Choice Foundation are both New Orleans charters (Crescent City is actually partnered with RelayGSE, so you know they are super-reformy).

Exactly what about these charters is progressive will remain a mystery for now, but it's easy to see why a system like Schoolrunner would appeal to a charter operator. You don't need highly trained, experienced or skilled teachers at all-- just unpack Big Brother in a Box, sit down at your desk, pull up your dashboard, and you are running a whole school!

This is competency base, computer controlled schooling at its worst. Dehumanizing, one-sixe-fits-all, sterile and yet one more version of school that you will never find the wealthy submitting their own children to.


  1. Google "Charlie Coglianese". A hedge fund analyst discovers his skills are needed in in education. Teachers supposedly begged for the data. Sigh.

  2. From that article about Coglianese: "It all started with a frustrated charter-school leader in New Orleans, who happened to be a friend of Coglianese. After he complained that his teachers spent too much time entering student data into spreadsheets to the detriment of teaching and planning, Coglianese devised an elegant software solution that not only saved time but simplified data-gathering, ultimately improving academic outcomes."

    Yes, because my students always learn better when the program I'm entering data into is pretty.

  3. Data Systems for the administrators under the sky,
    Systems for the teacher drones in their halls of stone,
    Systems for Mortal students doomed to die,
    One system for the Corporate Head on his dark throne
    In the Land of Cyber where the Shadows lie.
    One System to rule them all, One System to find them,
    One System to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them,
    In the Land of Cyber where the Shadows lie.